Through the Gates


I don’t believe in New Year’s resolutions.

I mean, I guess they can exist and they work for some people, but not for me. One, I’ve always eschewed normalcy and tradition. Two, not a fan of typicality. But mostly, it’s the arbitrary nature of it. Why does this calendar number mean you should think about the future and change what you do that’s terrible? Why not, March 29th? Or July twelfth?

This year feels different though. Maybe it’s a mid-life crisis, or the pending trumpacalypse, but I feel something, I don’t know, hopeful(?) about the future. I’m not going to make any proclamations. Sure, there’s things I want (and likely should) change, but writing them down and sharing them isn’t a motivator for me (in the same way that working with a personal trainer isn’t motivating – I don’t need someone to shout slogans at me when I work out, I want to shut out the rest of the world and push forward because I’m on autopilot not because I’m super aware of what I’m doing).

I like to think I’m a risk taker. Not in the same way someone that sky dives or swims with sharks is, that’s just stupid. But there have been multiple times in my life where I’ve done something because my gut says it was the thing to do and not because it was the smart (or even right) thing to do: quitting my job and moving to California, quitting my job and shooting a series of short films, quitting my job and taking a trip around the world (common thread?). Despite this, I still can be a giant pussy, although that’s mostly internalized. I remember walking home in the dark a few years back. I went along the bike path, which is poorly lit. I remember hearing the rustling of footsteps ahead of me and steeling myself for an uncomfortable encounter. I knew I was about to get mugged. But the footsteps belonged an eighty-year-old woman who was walking her Chihuahua. Thankfully, no one had to listen to my brain in the seconds before she came into view.

Late last year (god, it’s January already), I was in Japan for work. I spent a few days in Tokyo before ditching my coworkers and taking the bullet train down to Kyoto. While there, I sent most of my time walking around, checking out temples and recovering in the hot waters and steam rooms of the onsen. In my guide book it said I had to check out Fushimi Inari-taisha. Said it was an awesome spectacle. Google maps said it was three miles away, so I tied my shoes tight and walked to the hill where it was, not even bothering to check the hours or any other details. I just knew it was a sight to behold.

There were hundreds of people when I got there. Fushimi Inari-taisha is a series of gates (See picture), one after the other. At the entrance, they were formatted essentially into two tunnels, one going up, and one where people were returning. As I walked through the gates, I could hardly snap a picture without anyone in it. There were throngs of people ahead and behind me. So I kept stepping through the tunnel, the steps leading up, and leading to another series of gates. And then another. And another.

A couple hundred yards in, the traffic moved further up the hill it was built on. Every so often, the gates would open up to an open area where people would sit, and, naturally, take more pictures. After one opening, I saw dirt pathway leading up a hill, so I took it and found myself walking through a wooded area. The pathway ended at the entrance of a temple, or a series of small temple rooms, I guess. One in the center, two to the left, one to the right. In each one there was a series of offerings, some origami lights, oh and did I mention the spiders? Yeah, from the first few gates and well into the woods where I was there were massive spider webs spanning six to ten feet, with layers upon layers of webbing, as if Peter Parker couldn’t contain his excitement. And the spiders that peppered these webs were large. Not scary large like a fuzzy tarantula, but they did stretch several inches long with their creepy, spindly legs (are they on me right now? I feel like they’re on me).

It was in this temple area that I first noticed something weird. I was mostly alone, but a couple times a person or two would wander up the same path I came up and then continue beyond the temple. Only, when I went behind the temple, the pathway ended. Like, sharply, down a hill. And there was no sign of life beyond that. I double backed to the gates and continued moving up the hill.

I walked for another half an hour or so as the daylight began to fade. The gates continued up the hill. There were a couple openings that offered amazingly beautiful views of the city. Pretty soon it was evident that night had come, and the number of people had thinned out a lot, but there weren’t any other signs that the area was closing. All of the signs were in Japanese, naturally, but on one it looked like the arrow pointing ahead showed a mountain top, so I figured I should at least walk as high up as I could. I wasn’t likely to be at this place again any time soon.

As I moved up the hill, the dynamic of the gates changed. They still were directional tunnels, only now people moved up and down along the same path. And the spider webs grew more pronounced and dramatic the further up I went. When the tunnels would open up it would be at the footsteps of something akin to a cemetery. Small altars and sculptures that looked like tombstones were crammed into small areas, while statues of dogs glared down. I was beginning to get creeped out. But I kept moving. I imagined the top of the mountain would offer an impressive view. As I continued to move back through the tunnels, and the numerous grave sites that popped up every few hundred feet, the night grew darker, the number of people diminished dramatically and my brain went into hyper-worry mode.

No one knew I was up here. Only one of my friends actually knew I was in Kyoto. I guess the hotel I was staying at had my credit card, but suddenly it dawned on me that if anything were to happen to me, it would be days before anyone would figure out where to look for the body. (I’m telling you, it was this creepy, the spiders didn’t help).

I kept walking through the gates. After a while I realized it had been half an hour since I saw another human. The gates were poorly lit, which was a blessing and a curse. In the light the spider-webs would glisten and every twitch of the giant spiders was magnified. But in the dark, you couldn’t see the spiders, you could barely see the webs, but you knew they were out there. Right above you (are they on me? I feel like they’re on me). I wasn’t sure if I should keep going or turn around. The only sign of life I did come across was the number of wild cats just creeping around in that creepy cat way. I’m pretty sure they were trying to eat my soul.

I decided to press on. I would be disappointed if I came this far and missed out on something cool. My fitbit said I had walked eight miles since I began the trip to the gates, that meant five miles once I started. Which means I had to walk another five miles back, plus the three back to the hotel. No pain, no gain, right (slogans!), so I kept going. Mostly, the path kept leading up, and then would plateau out where another grave site was, and then would go up or down to the next one. I didn’t have a good sense on if this was some sort of loop or if I was boning myself and would eventually just have to turn around. I also couldn’t be completely sure that I hadn’t been bitten by a spider and this was all a fever dream that I was having while strung upside down in the webbing between the gates.

The path began to move downward with more consistency. It was pitch black now, even though it was only like seven or eight o’clock. The city lights were too far away and down to push through the trees that surrounded the entire area. I kept moving through, constantly second-guessing if I should move forward because the path would eventually loop around, or to double back because my legs were getting super pissed at how much work I was putting them through. I would scratch myself of flick my ear to prove that I was actually moving and not in the fever dream. As the cats continued to pop in, I would hiss them away. I took two steps at a time, moved faster and hoped that around each next bend I would see some form of life.

I began to see light at the end of the tunnel, both literally and metaphorically. I knew that if I made it to the lighted area ahead of me, I would be fine. But I also knew the likely scenario that I would be steps away and either I would then get bit by a spider and then strung up, or attacked by a series of cats like Michelle Pfeifer in Batman Returns, or I would see some friend or family member that would then tell me I had been dead this whole time or that this was all a vision and I had to break free of the webbing. Which is why it was super weird that when I finally made it to the lighted area, that the path revealed itself to be a loop, and that there was human life – that the human life I saw was a friend of mine, Jeremy. Now, Jeremy was not a good friend, so he was likely not who my brain would conjure in a fever dream, and I also had no idea he was even in Japan, much less Kyoto. And, since I hadn’t mentioned it on social media, he likely had no idea I was in Japan either.

I waited for him to address me. I was pretty sure it was him, but my brain was being weird and we were in Japan and Jeremy is Asian (though not Japanese) and I wanted to be sure I wasn’t just being racist and thinking it was him. He was as surprised to see me as I was him. We exchanged greetings. He was just getting ready to start the loop and I explained to him what he was in for. The odds of us crossing paths at that exact moment had to be pretty exceptional. Had he taken two more steps forward before I came through the tunnel, I would’ve seen only the back of his head and wouldn’t have thought twice about who he might’ve been. Maybe I was meant to warn him about the scary things along the path ahead. Or maybe I’m still having a fever dream back in some spider-web and the last few months have all been a part of that.

As I think of what’s to come in this new year, and while everyone is making resolutions and I’m just trying to figure out my path, I’m convinced that in some cases, I don’t need to change my behavior in some cases. My approach to life works for me and I don’t need to be afraid of that. I just need to do what I always do – go with my gut, and start by putting one foot in front of the other.

Of course, if I am dead or still in that spider’s den this might be really bad advice.



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Filed under life, travels

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